By Jean Lowerison
At the risk of being drummed out of the critics’ circle, I assert that playwright Anton Chekhov doesn’t make it easy to love his characters.
Case in point: “Uncle Vanya,” playing through March 11 at the Old Globe. The play showcases seven people (two characters have been dropped from the original script for this production); many of them are related and none of them are happy. A majority of the characters blame others for their misery but are unwilling to do anything to improve the situation.
This sounds a little too much like the current political scene for my taste. But if you’re going to present these “misfits,” as the doctor Mikhaíl Astrov calls them, you can’t do better than the splendid cast and unusual staging on view at the Globe’s in-the-round White Theatre.
The Globe has commissioned a new translation from noted Russian translators Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky, with help from director Richard Nelson. Nelson decided to stage it not as a play but as what it is — a series of conversations.
The characters talk to each other, not to the audience. They aren’t individually miked, and you won’t find them declaiming with outstretched arm or looking the audience in the face. At times, you’ll be looking at someone’s back. The audience is eavesdropping on a family in some turmoil, talking among themselves.
Will Pickens’ sound design includes many small microphones suspended eight feet off the stage floor. Additionally, the Globe thoughtfully loans optional hearing devices to make sure the conversation is heard.
“Uncle Vanya” takes place in the kitchen of retired professor Alexander Serebryakóv’s estate. Jason Ardizzone-West’s simple set consists of several tables and straight-backed chairs, moved into place by the cast at the top of the show.
The show’s message comes down to the disconcerting gap between what is vs. what these characters wanted, leading to the crowning question: what’s life all about, anyway?
Jon DeVries plays retired professor Serebryakóv, ticked off by the ravages of time (including gout and arthritis) and perhaps a bit guilty about taking advantage of brother-in-law Vanya all these years. His plan at the moment is to sell the estate and invest the proceeds, so he and second wife Eléna can buy a small place in Finland.
Serebryakóv’s trophy wife Eléna (Celeste Arias) gave up a promising music career to marry and says she has since become an “incidental character” in her own life. She doesn’t love her husband and has abandoned herself to idleness.
Serebryakóv’s daughter Sónya (Yvonne Woods) is of marriageable age but moans that she is not pretty and may never marry, while harboring a not-so-secret crush on local doctor Mikhaíl Ástrov (Jesse Pennington). Ástrov has no such feelings for the girl; he has his eye on the old prof’s pretty wife.
Ástrov has some competition from Jay O. Sanders, giving a larger-than-life performance as Sónya’s uncle Vanya, a cynic who mostly bemoans two things: his failure to make his move with Eléna when he might have succeeded, and the fact that he threw his life away as caretaker of his brother-in-law’s estate.
Two other women get fairly curt treatment. Roberta Maxwell is marvelous but doesn’t have much to do as Vanya’s aged mother Márya (Roberta Maxwell), who spends her time annotating pamphlets about various social issues and awaiting either death or the dawn of a new age.
Kate Kearney-Patch is excellent as Sónya’s former nanny Marína, who feeds these ungrateful folks, gives them comfort and tries to keep the household going.
Wasted lives, impossible loves, and the inexorable ravages of time: maybe you should have a glass of wine (or two) before seeing this cheerless show. But do see it: The Old Globe has given it a terrific production.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.